In honor of the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth on May 29, the Smithsonian is featuring a rare exhibit of Richard Avedon portraits of the Kennedy family. The only artist granted access to the Kennedys between JFK’s election win and his inauguration, Avedon photographed the family in their Palm Beach home on January 3, 1961—just weeks after John Jr. was born—and weeks before Kennedy would take office.
Shannon Perich, curator of the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History who quite literally wrote the book on these images, explained that the photos were originally intended to be a fashion shoot highlighting Jackie, but “both Avedon and JFK intuitively understood the opportunity that was in front of them, and so there was a collaboration.”
“It becomes this interesting moment to think about, where he’s not quite president yet. He’s building up for it and that excitement and anticipation and anxiety and the stress of it all before this big moment in his life and in the nation’s life. Some of that is visible in the photographs, but what’s also interesting is we now know what is swirling around. He’s trying to establish his cabinet; he’s working on his inauguration speech; he has this tiny baby that’s five and a half weeks old; there’s all this demand for pressure. Something’s going on in Cuba.” Perich says. (The United States officially severed diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961.)
“And yet, when you see these photographs, he’s in control. He is not stressed out by it, he’s not overwhelmed by it, he’s not overly excited by it, even. So there’s something interesting using our historical knowledge that we bring as viewers in looking at this photo session.”
Avedon also noted his control at the time in an interview with Newsweek. “When I took Caroline’s picture with her father, he was dictating memos to his secretary,” Avedon said. “When I’d ask him to look around, he’d stop dictating. But the moment I finished, he’d start in where he left off. I’ve never seen such a display of mental control in my life.”
In addition to the portraits, the series of nine images (selected from a much larger collection from the shoot) also includes several enlarged contact sheets. “We get to peek in to see the process of what was going on in front of the camera. It’s unusual to see someone enlarge and mount their contact sheets, but that’s what [Avedon] did.”
Fifty-plus years after the images were taken, Perich says one aspect remains unchanged.”There’s a Kennedy mystique that’s still visible: the glamour that they hold, and this idea that they were on the cutting edge of American culture and the peak of a moment in time. All of that still remains. How he’s perceived in a historical sense has changed.”
“What we bring as viewers to these photographs has changed over time,” Perich said. But, “people do know that only Caroline is left. There is a kind of dramatic irony that viewers often bring to looking at these photographs that I still think influences how we understand them.”
The portrait exhibit, which will be on display from May 25 to August 27, is just one of several JFK-related events taking place this spring in honor of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. See the rest of the collection below, and for more information on the Smithsonian’s Kennedy-related programming, visit americannow.si.edu.